by Anthony G. Flude ©2001

WHALE OIL was a commodity which was in great demand. It was used for machinery lubrication and as a clean burning fuel for lamps in Europe, Asia and America, where the oil from the head and jaw of these mammals did not congeal in extreme cold, nor require any form of refining, and could therefore be used to lubricate the cogs and wheels of the most delicate of instruments such as clocks and watches.
Whaling ships came from as far away as Europe, America, Britain, France and Australia to 'fish' the waters off New Zealand well before the year 1794, when the first ledgers were kept of their cargo's of oil and sealskins which were then officially registered by Customs agents and placed on public record.

It was common knowledge among the owners and captain's of the whaling fleets, that the schools of Humpback, Right, Minke and Sperm Whales from the Pacific Ocean, began to arrive off the west coast of New Zealand  during their migration to the Antarctic in early May each year.

They made their way south past Kapiti Island and the mainland, heading through Cook Strait for Picton and Kaikoura to a place known as Cloudy Bay. During June, the schools continued to cruise south towards Ferveaux Strait before turning northwards again, heading towards the Chatham Islands and the wider Pacific Ocean during the month of October.

Armed with this knowledge, several Australian and American shippers decided to set up Whaling Stations in those areas where the whales were known to frequent or pass through. They negotiated with the local Maori chiefs for the use or sale of the land for the establishment of these. 

The first recorded Shore Station to be set up on the New Zealand Coast was located at Dusky Sound, Fiordland, in the year 1792, when, sealing parties were landed to establish a base to hunt the seals for their pelts. These were in vogue in the fashion industry in America, Britain and Europe, where they were made into men and ladies hats.
Whaling ships from several countries, plied up and down the coast of New Zealand for several years during the whale hunting season, but it was not until 1828 that the first so-called 'Shore-Whaling' Station was introduced in the South Island at Cloudy Bay.

A second Whaling Station began operations soon after in 1829, on Arapawa Island,  Malborough Sounds. This was followed in November 1831, by the setting up of an Australian station, Weller's Bay Whaling Station, in Otago Harbour.
In April of the following year, while back in Sydney, Weller was to learn that his station and its whalers houses, had been burned to the ground by a Maori raiding party.
Undaunted, Weller sailed with Captain Worth in the Lucy Ann in 1833 to rebuild the station again for bay-whaling and was successful in the hunt, collecting 130 tuns of whale oil and seven tuns of whalebone, together with a bale of sealskins during that season.
(Note:* Whale oil was measured in tuns or barrells.)

The whales were usually found close inshore in the bays, between 2 and 7 miles off the coast. The whalers moved in with their fleet of small whaleboats and made their kill,  dragging their large carcasses  back to the station, which, depending on the size and weight, could sometimes take up to a total of 14 hrs. hard rowing over several days. If the weather blew up stormy, they sometimes had to anchor their catch in the swell and row for the safety of the distant shoreline and return the next day.
Beached whale

After the whale had been dragged back to the shore station, it would be hauled up the beach so that the 'flensers' could climb over the carcass with their sharp 'spades' to cut the strips of blubber down the entire length of the body. These strips were then dragged off with the help of a capstan and chopped into blocks to be thrown in the trypots which were heated with 'scrag', the name given to the residue flesh of previous rendering, which burned well.  As the oil rose to the surface, it was skimmed off and stored in large wooden casks for cooling, ready to be loaded aboard the visiting whalers.

The whale jawbone was carefully cut out also and buried in the sand for ten days, by which time the hair on the plates had rotted away. Washed, scraped and carefully packed, whalebone was a valuable commodity, the pliable bone from the mouth being used by the makers of ladies corsets and stays. A further use of this bone, was in the manufacturer of  flexible 'buggy' horse whips.

One such station, already mentioned, was Cloudy Bay, (Te Awa-ite, north of Kaikoura),  which was set up in Marlborough Sound during early 1829,  under the control of Captain John Guard. He had the station built and up and running for that  whaling season.  The number of whalers and settlers working and living at the station gradually rose over the following years to a population of nearly two hundred people, where it became the largest white settlement and Whaling Station on the South Island of New Zealand.

A one-time whaler and settler named Dick Barrett  had been living and working at the whaling stations in New Zealand for ten or twelve years. He decided to settle at the Te Awa Iti whaling station, Marlborough Sounds. By 1839 he had built a house of sawn timber, floored and lined inside, with a sheltered verandah, perched on the flat of a knoll overlooking the settlement and anchorage.

The Rev.Edward J. Wakefield came out to New Zealand in 1839 and on a visit to the station met Dick Barrett. It was Sunday and some of the whalers were dressed in their Sunday best. Others worked. Wakefield in his narrative wrote:
"A large gang were busy at the try-works boiling out the oil from a whale lately caught.....The whole ground and beach about here were satuarated with oil and the stench of the carcasses and scraps of whale flesh lying about in the Bay was intolerable..."
As the men stoked the furnace and stirred the reeking pots, one of them was asked if they always worked on Sunday?
Contemptuously the worker had replied, "Oh! Sunday. It never comes into this Bay!"

Whalers wait Wakefield's journal continued:- "The workers at these bay-whaling stations were not paid wages, they were paid in slops (loose fitting trousers; ready made clothing), spirits or tobacco. They were a bearded, unkempt mixture of runaway seamen, deserters, or escaped convicts of several nationalities. They could earn the equivalent of £35 wages during the season between May and October, while carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers (barrel-makers) were paid at the higher rate of 10/- a day.
The women at Cloudy Bay were from the maori tribe of Kawhia, those in the Sounds were Ngati-awa. There were twentyfive children at the whaling station, all part-maori."
Reading through the journals of the early travellers to New Zealand, it was apparent that the Whaling Stations left a strong impression with them, for the same descriptive terms were used for each one visited by them:-
Te Koroiwa, "looked filthy and had a disgusting stench from the putrid carcasses of the whales"
Waikouaite Whaling Station, "the whole beach was strewn with gigantic fragments of bones.........the pigs and seagulls picked over the refuse left lying there." Whaling was not for the faint hearted!

The year 1830 had been a bumper year for the whalers at Cloudy Bay.
Lying at anchor in the Bay was the whaler Waterloo, a 66 ton schooner which had aboard, in the cargo hold, some 66 tuns of whale oil and 1,185 seal skins. The previous year, the brigantine Hind, owned by R. Campbell & Co. Sydney, picked up a cargo of flax from Kapiti Island and from the 'bay-whaling' station at Cloudy Bay, some 25 tons of sperm oil.

In 1832 six vessels arrived in Cloudy Bay at the start of the whaling season and set off into the Bay after the whales which could be seen basking and spouting from the shoreline.
The Dragon out of Hobart, later reported a haul of 1600 barrels of oil in her hold, the Courier 300 barrels of black oil and 400 of sperm oil. The William Stoveldhad 300 barrels of black oil and 400 of sperm oil and the New Zealander the same amount. All of this oil was landed in Sydney.
Porirua whale station The Juno, an American vessel, had her hold full to capacity with nearly 1000 barrels of oil procured from her whale hunt along the New Zealand coast.

Meanwhile in November, 1832, Captain W. Kinnard, together with four seal hunters, were left at Rocky Point to establish a sealing station. They arrived aboard the Admiral Gifford out of Sydney. When the ship returned to pick them up with their bales of sealskins some six months later, they could find no trace of them. To their horror, they learned that their party had been seized by a band of local Maori, their camp burned and that they had all been slaughtered and eaten.

Excitement mounted in Sydney as merchants began  preparations for the whaling season off New Zealand in the year 1836. Two whaling vessels were dispatched, however, when they arrived at Cloudy Bay, they found they were not the first.
Two British whalers lay at anchor alongside a French schooner, which had arrived a few days before. On the other side of the Bay some thirteen American whalers lay clustered together.

For several days the fleet lay quietly waiting for the whales arrival. At dusk came the news from the returning lookout whaleboats that a school of 21 or more whales had been sighted and counted in the outer Bay; the next day, anchors were weighed and the hunt began in earnest.
Whaleboat parties would be launched from every vessel once they were among the whales; some 20-25 boats set out, each with a crew of six, comprising four strong rowers, a steersman in the stern and a harpoonist standing in the bow ready to strike as they persued their quarry.
The Chase
Adrenaline would have run high as the chase continued. The most dangerous time was when the whale had been harpooned and the ten fathoms of line had snaked out. The crew then prepared for the ride of their lives as the whale set off at a fast pace, dragging the whaleboat and its crew behind; others would sound (dive to the bottom) and then surface again among its attackers. The whales gigantic tails, thrashing in the swell,  caused many a persuer's whaleboat to be smashed or capsized and crew members killed, maimed or drowned. Others would become swamped and  founder, the crew cast into the sea clinging to the upturned boats awaiting rescue from the others in the vicinity.
When a kill was made, the catch would be pulled alongside the whaler where it would be secured and the task of stripping the blubber and whalebone begin. Boiling trypots aboard the whalers would then extract the valuable whale oil which would be stored in wooden barrels.
Whale oil cargo records taken from the vessels involved, give a good indication of the size of the haul and the huge profits that the merchants would have made:

Ship Black Oil [barrels] Sperm Oil [barrels] Whale Bone [lbs.]
Nile 2400 200 21,300
Warren 3000 800 30,000
Benjamin Rush 120 1820
Favorite 1000 240
Friendship 700
Sarah Lee 1700 600
Columbus 2100 600
Vermont 2500 400
Martha 1700 240
Franklin 750
James Stewart 2700 300 31,000
Jasper 1800 250
Samual Robertson 3200 200
John Adams 1750 250
Navy 2600 200 45,000
South Boston 2400 300
Gratitude 3100 300
Tuscaloosa 1870 130
Erie 2600 300 17,000

Using the black whale oil as an example, a total of 36,580 barrels, or 4,572 tuns, was obtained by these vessels while whaling in the South Island of New Zealand.  Calculated at £28 per tun,  the value of the total cargo of this oil alone, amounted to £128,016. Whalebone fetched £90-£110 a tun.

In November of the year 1837, the whaler Roslyn Castle, out of Sydney, returned after a nineteen month whaling voyage around the coast New Zealand. She had a large cargo on board for her owners, Richards & Co., which consisted of 3000 barrels of black whale oil, 500 barrels of sperm whale oil and some 15 tons of whalebone.
Despite the high profits made from the sale of this cargo, it was not enough to save the company, which had meanwhile gone into receivership.
The trustees now offered for sale the three company owned whaling vessels, the Proteus, Rosyln Castle and Bee, together with two Whaling Stations it owned on Kapiti Island, New Zealand.

Two Whaling Stations at Ocean Bay and Port Underwood were bought and operated by A.Oliver between 1837-1839; at Preservation Harbour, Ferveaux Sound, the Whaling Station was reported to have recovered  616 tuns of black whale oil from 'bay-whaling' which was fetching between £14 and £16 a tun. Their efforts for that season netted the amount of £9,856.

The American owned Whaling Stations on Kapiti Island were reputed to have been run on a more military basis by Messrs. Mayhew and Lewis in 1839 who may have been somewhat tidier in their activities. On Evan's Island, east of Kapiti, Evan's six whaleboats netted 250 tun of black whale oil which returned £300; while Mayhew, with nineteen whaleboats,  managed only 216 tuns, returning £285.
Another of the many whaling stations set up on the New Zealand coast was the Tuatuku Station situated on the south-east shores of Stewart Island in 1846. It operated for a few years successfully but the owners moved on to better grounds.

Robert Fyffe began shore-whaling at the Kaikoura Whaling Station in the year 1841,  but at that time the ownership had not been settled until he entered 
Fyffes Cove
into a partnership agreement with businessman John Murray and others in 1842. They were offered the use of the Coalheaver Station on Mana island, Nr. Wellington, but refused the offer, as they were aware that the whaling results were poor in that area.

Fyffe was left to run the whaling station and gradually Murray dropped out of the whaling scene to run his sheep station. Murray was unfortunately drowned in 1845 and his brother took over running both the sheep station and the whaling business. Fyffe later became the sole owner of the Kaikoura Whaling Station and purchased the South Bay station in late 1845. He reported a good catch for the next two seasons, selling his whale oil and bone to the Wellington firm of Waiitt & Tyser in 1845-46, who shipped it on to England.

The Fyffe Whaling Station at Kaikoura continued operations for many years; the demand for whale oil on the world markets weakened slightly as the supply of gas and electricity became readily available for the average homeowner and the whale lamps were stored away in cupboards for the odd emergency. Sealskin hats and collars had long gone out of fashion so this trade also declined rapidly.

In 1908 the first motorised launch, built in Wellington to the order of J.Goodall, had one of the latest muzzle loaded harpoon guns mounted on the bow. Pursuit of the whales was now faster and easier. Motor launches used for shore whaling began to reach speeds of 16knots by the year 1917; they could easily catch the whales and overhaul them, if necessary, to turn them back towards the shoreline.
Jackson, at Kaikoura, went one better in 1920, when he purchased a craft of 45hp., capable of speeds up to 18-20 knots on flat water and was therefore able to speed ahead of his competitors to take the pick of the whales before they arrived on the scene.

Gradually the Shore-Whaling Stations closed down over the years. Some were still fully functional and operating in 1925 on the South Island supplying whale oil to Europe and Britain.
Through the 1930's and 40's, motor industry petroleum oils and machinery lubricants were found to be just as efficient and the demand for whale oil in industry gradually declined through to the 1960's.

New Zealand, Australian, Korean and Japanese whalers continued to hunt the Humpback whale in the oceans around the New Zealand shores until the year 1960, when a sudden crash of Humpback Stock on the World Stockmarkets, resulted in a  further decline in world-wide Whale Oil prices.

The commercial whaling industry in New Zealand was at its end in 1964. Few traces of the old Whaling Stations exist on the shores of the North and South Islands of New Zealand today;  occasionally the odd rib-bone becomes exposed in the shifting sands, just as a reminder of a by-gone age.